When you substitute for the archaic-sounding fear of man—fear is how it’s rendered in nearly all the earliest English translations and has come down to us intact in newer versions—aren’t we really talking about being introverted, reserved, timid or lacking self-confidence? And does it really matter?
The short answer is, Yes, it does matter, a great deal. The Bible is not dealing with personality, temperament or some attribute such as blue eyes or curly hair. In fact, it’s a watershed distinction that has often been overlooked in studying the ministry of Jesus and the response to it.
When Jesus taught about the kingdom he was inaugurating, he contrasted it with that of the dominant religious leaders not just in proclaiming a higher standard but in who it was for.
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Instead, do it “in secret” [i.e., not visible to men]. “Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” [Mt 6: 1, 4].
Toward the end of his earthly ministry he was even more emphatic: “Everything they do is done for men to see” [Mt 23:5]. Whether it was giving alms, praying, fasting—all good religious things to do with good consequences—he was saying it came down to intention, not just outward appearance or a measure of social good.
In any public expression of faith, fear of man has a flip side: loving praise from men. A people-pleasing person simultaneously craves commendation and fears rejection or ostracism. And in subtle, insidious ways, it can affect the things we say, the way we think and the deeds we do (or don’t do).
But there is nothing subtle or insignificant about its outcome: “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue, for they loved praise from men more than praise from God” [Jn 12:42-43].
Did they believe? Were they drawn to his teaching? Yes, but that’s as far as it went. In private, out of the public eye, they could acknowledge that what he said was true. But there was something in their heart they cherished more, and that vetoed any more public demonstration of their faith.
Think of Nicodemus, “a man of the Pharisees . . a member of the Jewish ruling council” who “came to Jesus at night.” “We know you are a teacher who has come from God,” he said [Jn 3:1-2].
But if you’re still wondering, consider the severe discipline meted out to two members of the early church, Ananias and Sapphira [Acts 5:1-11]. They sold a piece of property so the proceeds could be given to the apostles—a good thing, surely—but unknown to the apostles (at least initially) retained some of the price for themselves. Clearly, it was “done for men to see” even if some good could come out of it regardless of motive.
But think about the context here. Jesus had roundly condemned the “done for men to see” aspect of the religious leaders’ ministry, something that certainly figured in their hostility toward him that resulted in his arrest and execution. And here were a couple trying to inject into the infant church the very thing that Jesus died to replace.
Instead of “losing their life to find it”—the hallmark of discipleship—they wanted to straddle both worlds. It was not to be. They had not “lied to men but to God,” Peter said. It does matter who your ‘acts of righteousness’ are for.
The outcome, however, was ultimately salutary: “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.” And then, “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people” [5:17]. Power follows true purity.